2021 AAAS Sarton Lecture: Pandora’s Pandemic

by Luis A. Campos

Editor’s note: The 2021 George Sarton Memorial Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was delivered by Luis Campos, probably best known to us as the Secretary of HSS, although his day job is at the University of New Mexico, where he is Associate Professor and Regents’ Lecturer of the History of Science. The following abridged version of the lecture was published in Science and we have reprinted it here (sans footnotes etc. in keeping with our style) for your reading pleasure. A more detailed account is available in a chapter titled “Strains of Andromeda: The Cosmic Potential Hazards of Genetic Engineering,” in the upcoming edited volume Nature Remade: Engineering Life, Envisioning Worlds (University of Chicago Press, July 2021).

Fifty years ago, the blockbuster du jour was The Andromeda Strain, a film based on a new kind of biomedical thriller that depicted a plague of putatively extraterrestrial origins. The film—directed, perhaps incongruously, by Robert Wise of The Sound of Music fame—would in time be hailed by the Infectious Diseases Society of America as the “most significant, scientifically accurate, and prototypic of all films of this genre.”

The genre itself had effectively been invented two years earlier by a young medical school student, Michael Crichton, whose first novel, The Andromeda Strain (1969) served as the film’s source material and told the story of a military satellite descending to Earth with a bug from space that—according to a full-page ad in the New York Times—caused “the world’s first space-age biological emergency.” Selling over two million copies when it was first released, The Andromeda Strain drew the American public’s attention from the imminent prospect of atomic apocalypse to a new realm of potential biological catastrophe. (Crichton credited the idea for the novel to a comment made by the paleontologist G. G. Simpson about airborne microorganisms high in the Earth’s atmosphere.)

A collage of the poster of the film Andromeda Strain, the virus from the film, and Luis A. Campos.

Crichton’s new narrative style depended on verisimilitude, and what Joanna Radin has called “authenticating detail ripped from leading academic scholarship,” providing reports from the near-future of technology that often “blurred the line between fiction and reality,” even as they blurred the line between exobiological concerns and the engineering of biology.

Speculations about containment, contamination, and colonization were widespread in the 1960s and 1970s in scientific circles concerned with exobiology, evolutionary biology, and the new prospects for the molecular engineering of biology, as these fields invoked a shared language of breaching “barriers”—evolutionary barriers, species barriers, safety barriers, and containment barriers. While exobiologists raised the prospect of interplanetary quarantines, biologists concerned with more terrestrial patterns of invasion biology and the genetics of colonizing species gathered at Asilomar in 1965, a decade before the famous “Pandora’s Box Congress” meeting on recombinant DNA, to discuss what they called the “‘alien’ habitats of invading species,” the dominance of “hypervirulent” strains, and whether such “infections” would take. The concern was clear: how to forestall “biological missteps,” whether intentional or unintentional. 

The Andromeda Strain entered into this dynamic ecosystem, weaving together concerns over planetary protection and earthly decisions about laboratory biocontainment strategies. Though entirely fictional, the narrative described in the book and subsequent film would come to play a central role in the construction of new and contested futures for molecular biology.

As Crichton’s story began to infect discussions of the potential biohazards of recombinant DNA, journalists struggled to describe the possibilities and the risks of newly available engineering techniques, and often turned to the fictional microbe to capture the issues at stake. On the day after the famous 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA concluded, the Boston Globe trumpeted: “Scientists to Resume Risky Work on Genes: Danger of Andromeda Strain Posed.”

Many biologists, including Asilomar co-organizers Norton Zinder, Paul Berg, Maxine Singer, Sydney Brenner, and later others on the NIH’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee sought to counter such sensationalist coverage as “molecular politics,” distracting from actual engineerable futures for biology, and conflating sober assessments of risk with speculative science fiction scenarios. Andromeda-inspired fears about genetic engineering were themselves the emerging disease of concern in many scientists’ opinion.

Within a few years, as debates over appropriate laboratory biocontainment strategies for newly engineered organisms proceeded, the Andromeda strain would be repeatedly invoked, intruding even into conversations on Capitol Hill. At one Senate hearing on proposed regulation of recombinant DNA research, Oliver Smithies, a past president of the Genetics Society of America, began his remarks by noting: “I think we are here because of a very popular modern science fiction novel by Michael Crichton—The Andromeda Strain.” After pointedly correcting Smithies’ testimony, which had referred to an outbreak of plague in New Mexico, Jack Harrison Schmitt, a senator from New Mexico and former astronaut, invoked his own literary interpretation of Crichton’s tale about a pathogen from space landing in the American Southwest to suggest the lessons of fiction and the likely outcome of a real-world Andromeda strain scenario. At another hearing, the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare referenced the possible emergence of Andromeda-like pathogens as the appropriate context for considering “strict guidelines in the conduct of recombinant DNA research.” 

From the very beginning, the exploration of risk scenarios involving recombinant DNA was an act of both science and science fiction. And the tension was clear: the risk of biological escape and the potential biohazard of newly engineered forms of life was a scientifically grounded possibility worth considering, but it was still useful to distinguish such speculations from sensationalism. Even as The Andromeda Strain became fully enfolded into public representations of genetic engineering, its blurry continuum between fact and fiction—the stylistic move at the heart of Crichton’s success—made it difficult to classify concerns about the potential hazard of recombinant DNA as either serious concerns or a source of unsubstantiated fears, infuriating many molecular biologists.

As Andromedan echoes persisted in debates about overly complicated biomedical laboratory design (“Andromeda Design Syndrome”), the story even came to infect liability discussions at top-rank research universities. One internal memo from Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing, “The Technology and the Threat,” described the appropriate use of licensing to “inhibit scientists from conducting research that might result in an Andromeda Strain being unleashed upon the world.” Science fiction possibilities and scientific futures (not to mention legal and reputational liabilities) were difficult to disentangle when it came to the engineering of life at the molecular level.

In a retrospective published in 1995, Berg and Singer concluded that “after twenty years of research and risk assessment, most recombinant DNA experiments are, today, unregulated…. The fear of ‘Andromeda strains’ has disappeared.” And according to Science in 2000, “The technology that seemed like science fiction in 1975 is now commonplace.” Andromeda-inspired fears had clearly receded by the dawn of the new millennium—replaced, perhaps, for the next generation by new visions of biological possibility à la Crichton’s Jurassic Park

Still, for some virologists, The Andromeda Strain highlighted important concerns. Virologist Cedric Mims, for example, noted in 1995 that a hypothetical Andromeda strain causing a virulent human pandemic “would depend on its transmissibility, and transmissibility is a neglected subject in microbiology.” A virulent human pandemic would not always be hypothetical, however.

“What could be more bone-chilling than a seemingly out-of-control virus leaping from region to region around the globe without a known vaccine to prevent it or slow it down, causing death and economic mayhem along the way?” wrote William Cohan in the New York Times at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. “The coronavirus narrative has the texture and feel of ‘The Andromeda Strain,’ … come to life.”

In mid-May, as American deaths due to COVID-19 neared 100,000, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane offered for contemporary audiences a fresh perspective on The Andromeda Strain, which contained what Lane called “the most alarming thing I’ve come across, in this trade-off between the real and the imagined.” In an eerie presage of our present pandemical predicament, he described a moment in the film when the experts’ concerns are relayed to the White House:

“By then, the disease could spread into a worldwide epidemic.”

“It’s because of rash statements like that the President doesn’t trust scientists.”

“That’s a little too close to the bone, I reckon,” Lane remarked, but he felt that the film presciently captured “how harshly politics and medicine can scrape against each other, whenever peril impends”—just as science and science fiction can.

Critiques of Andromedan fantasies at the time of Asilomar were attempts to address the ways in which fictional narratives were seen by some scientists as sensationalism in the service of fearmongering. The concern then was hype; ours today, arguably, is hoax. But the divisive and difficult dynamics are familiar: when narratives can have life-or-death consequences, which speculative futures come to be authorized as scientific, as appropriately cautious, and which are rendered fictional, or fake? In a moment when the interpretation of evidence has been compromised, such that large numbers of Americans deny the severity or even the very existence of the pandemic, the stakes are all too real.

Over the last year, we have become familiar with the challenge of ensuring a shared collective understanding and response to a rampaging microbe and the hard social work required to sustain mutually agreed upon futures in the midst of a pandemic. Contemporary “debates” over what is permissible or impermissible, a theory or a conspiracy theory, and the contested terrain of speculative futures and their long afterlives, suggest that the ways in which even fictions circulate can reveal important truths. As we proceed into a vaccinated future at (Operation) Warp Speed—our most amazing, cutting-edge science of vaccine development is both wrapped up with legacies of science fiction and also blessedly very real—a better understanding of the intertwined histories of scientific models and science fiction novels makes time a telling tincture.

More from the April 2021 Newsletter